Whether it’s Little League, the Frontier League or the big leagues, you win with pitching.
The Miners’ quest for a championship was fortified in the offseason by the acquisition of durable righthander Chase Cunningham. A staple of Washington’s rotation the last three years, Cunningham asked for and received a trade to Southern Illinois on Jan. 31, the Miners sending reliever Nick Durazo and future considerations to Pennsylvania.
How Cunningham became a Miner was as much about geography as the team’s need. The team that manager Mike Pinto likes to promote as a family beefed up its starting rotation because Cunningham wanted to be closer to his family.
“I wanted a change in environment, and my girlfriend lives in Nashville,” he said Monday at the team’s Media Day. “My family’s from Tennessee, and Southern Illinois just seemed like a good fit for my future goals.
“I felt like my time in Washington was just about up, but not because I didn’t love playing there. I felt like I was going through the motions and wanted a change of pace to where I felt challenged again.”
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound Cunningham might not be a prototypical ace. He pitches to contact and averages about one strikeout for every two innings. In this age of high velocity, spin rate and K rate, his style of pitching isn’t sexy.
But Cunningham does three things well: He keeps the ball in the yard, doesn’t give away free bases and doesn’t miss starts. Cunningham didn’t miss a start in three seasons with Washington, something Pinto was quick to point out.
“He’s had 19, 20 and 20 starts over three years,” Pinto said. “That’s really good for a manager to know that he can write his name in every five days. He’s going to pitch deep into games and he’s going to give you a chance.”
Last year, Cunningham went 7-6 with a 4.45 earned run average in 20 starts as Washington reached the league finals. He went 1-1 in two playoff starts as the Wild Things reached the championship series, ultimately losing in five games to East Division rival Joliet.
In 2017, Cunningham was an All-Star after going 10-3 with a 3.46 earned run average. He tied for second in the league in wins, averaging better than six innings per start and firing the first complete game of his career.
His 59 starts and 347 innings over the last three years in Washington stand as franchise records. This coming from a guy who was used primarily as a reliever during his two seasons at Belmont University.
“It just shows the prep work I do, and that I take a lot of accountability for myself,” Cunningham said. “Every five days, I’m ready to go and do my job. You’re going to see someone who’s very competitive and hates to lose.
“After I throw 100 or 110 pitches in a start, I’m sore the next day. So I’ve got to take my range of motion exercises very seriously. Starting a ballgame is really a five-day process.”
A few years ago, when they started a multi-year process of tanking seasons in order to become a championship contender again, the Philadelphia 76ers used “Trust the Process” as their motto. While it became a cliche after a while, it certainly holds true for a starting pitcher.
It also has held true for Cunningham in real life. An east Tennessee native, he’s certainly come a long way from the Avoca fields in Bristol, Tenn. on which he first cut his competitive baseball teeth.
Now he’s in Southern Illinois, ready to start the next stage of his career and eager to pitch in a ballpark that seems suited for his approach.
“It’s a fresh start,” Cunningham said. “I’m a new kid on a new team. My dad always told me that you play your best when you have something to prove. I have something to prove. It’s fun.”